In the words of that Bob Dylan song, times they…
Thatching is one of the most ancient crafts still being carried on today, stretching back to a time when only locally sourced materials were available and when most rural hamlets were truly self-sufficient.
Thatched buildings have a natural empathy with their surroundings, helping them blend seamlessly into the East Devon countryside. Irregular cob walls add even greater charm, particularly when rendered and limewashed. Cob and thatch buildings are very green due to excellent thermal efficiency and biodegradability. An important consideration with the current environmental issues.
To gain more of an insight into this ancient rural craft, I visited Frank Turbitt in Otterton, whose family have been thatchers since the time of George II. Over the generations, the Turbitt family have thatched all manner of Devonshire property from Raleigh’s Hayes Barton, to many of the farms and cottages that grace the Devonshire countryside.
Frank is retired now but the business has been taken over by Philip White, who was trained by Frank and worked for him for 20 years. Frank’s son, although interested in thatching, preferred electronics. Frank’s brother, David, also a retired thatcher, has his son Mark continuing on with the family thatching business.
Frank’s grandfather was a thatcher on General Buller estate in Crediton and married a thatcher’s daughter from Sandford. In the late 1900’s he came to the Sidbury Manor Estate to carry on his trade.
It was particularly interesting whilst browsing through Frank’s collection of old photos and family documents, coming across an article from Country Life magazine written in 1943. Frank’s father, Jack, had been featured in this article which was soberly headed “Will Thatching Be Revived?”. Jack said that he was getting numerous requests to thatch properties that had previously been tiled. Country Life also questioned whether new homes built using these traditional methods to satisfy the rustic cravings of homeowners would be “wholly unsuitable”. It appears that the mass use of thatch in modern homes hasn’t happened to any great extent, although when you do spot them, the eye can be jarred as precise, square cornered buildings are out of kilter with the naturalistic curves of a thatched roof.
Many buildings are now thatched with water reed although traditionally, rye wheat straw (a by-product from growing wheat grain) was used which Frank tells me gives a finer finish. However, wheat straw is no longer suitable in many cases as varieties grown for a large wheat ear, give a short straw. Nowadays Frank says that they do go to the effort of growing their own rye wheat in order to get a supply, which is particularly important where listed buildings consent requires wheat thatch. However, the last couple of seasons have been particularly poor due to conditions at harvest.
Where water reed is used, much of it is sourced from Austria/Turkey/Poland/Ukraine. The Lincolnshire Fens, once providing an abundant supply, now produce only sufficient for local roofing, supply being exacerbated by nitrate leaching and RSPB protection of habitat.
Quality of workmanship is very important to the longevity of a thatched roof. Apparently, there is much scope for either good or poor quality workmanship and it is the attention paid throughout the construction that will provide extra durability and lifespan.
The process of thatching starts at the eaves, Straw wads are positioned on the wooden roofing and securely tied in with baler twine. Successive layers are built up by positioning the wads on top with the straw / reed ends being set backwards to create the sloping effect. Each wad is secured by spars (split hazel, twisted and bent to form a staple).
Underneath the ridge area, a tightly bound layer of straw running horizontally is secured to timberwork and then the final ridge thatch is secured with linggers (see picture ) to make good.
Spars and liggers were traditionally made by coppice woodsmen, but this craft has largely died away, so thatchers now undertake spar and ligger making themselves.